Most elections bring out the cynicism in people, in the way that political pandering, sleazy attack ads, and rising tension on social media tend to do. But lately, there seems to be more pessimism and apathy than ever before. The major party candidates are two of the most disliked in American history. Americans’ trust in the political system is at an all-time low. And our political dramas are darker than ever.
Two of the most popular political dramas on TV today—ABC’s Scandal and Netflix’s House of Cards—paint a bleak picture of American politics. Scandal’s original premise and its name reflect this well: you only think the scandal that’s being referenced is the affair between a president and his advisor. It turns out there’s a lot more: murders, a rigged election, and a web of crimes to cover it up. But even all of that looks fairly harmless when compared to House of Cards—the show that begins its first episode with the main character twisting the neck of a dog with startling nonchalance. House of Cards features murders, affairs, and corruption, lacing all of it with a disturbing level of casual disregard for goodness and truth in favor of absolute power and control. There are certainly some lighter options—Madame Secretary and The Good Wife come to mind—but the trend certainly leans towards bleakness and darkness. One of the first real American political dramas provides a pretty sharp contrast to this kind of outlook: The West Wing.Once we’ve accepted the message on our TV screens—that the system is hopelessly corrupt—we learn to settle for severely diminished standards for our leaders.
The West Wing deals with the grime of American politics and the pragmatism it requires, but it always offers a moment of hope—one that might even lean toward an overly optimistic view of human nature. Even many conservatives fell for Democratic President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) of The West Wing. Bartlet’s genuine desire to do the right thing and his balance of pragmatism and strong principles were qualities hard to scorn in the name of partisanship.The show is almost the opposite of House of Cards, a show which includes some moments of optimism, before immediately squashing them. Together, The West Wing and House of Cards provide a meaningful look at the way the sharp decline in political hope has been reflected in our cultural artifacts.
In a time of political pessimism, nostalgia for a perceived better and simpler time abounds. Today, conservatives like to identify as “Reagan conservatives” and bemoan the trajectory of modern politics. Nostalgia crosses the aisle as well, extending to The West Wing. Recently, one of the show’s stars, Allison Janney, took over a real White House press briefing, and the Today Show interviewed the cast at a show reunion for the ATX Television Festival in June. Joshua Malina (who played Will Bailey on the show) currently stars in Scandal while producing The West Wing Weekly, a podcast detailing each episode of the beloved show he starred in. The nostalgia surrounding The West Wing shows just how much the genre has evolved—we talk about wishing we could vote for Jed Bartlet because no one is interested in voting for Frank Underwood or Fitz Grant.
The shift in political dramas from optimism to pessimism is not the only or most significant measure of declining political hope in America. The trend has been tracked in more concrete terms: The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found in a 2016 survey that 90% of Americans “lack confidence in the country’s political system” and that only 4% have “much faith in Congress.” It’s clear that popular representations of politicians and the political system are reflecting this change, but could they be influencing it as well?
Producers of all kinds of media know that representations have great power to influence, inform, and inspire. When it comes to commonly-held views on family, sexuality, or gender, the influence of movies and television on the cultural norm is undeniable. The representations of women’s roles and homosexual relationships in the media have been hugely influential in replacing or modifying cultural norms. The representations we consume have an often undetectable influence on the expectations we have for the world—they can lead us to believe problems are more widespread than they actually are, or convince us to disregard important issues that don’t fit the narrative being sold.
The way we think about the ability of our politicians and political system itself to operate well is also influenced by representations in media. The year The West Wing premiered, Gallup reported that 9% of Americans had a “great deal” of confidence in Congress and 17% had “quite a lot.” Those numbers have fallen to 3% and 6% respectively in 2016. The surveys found similar plunges of confidence in the president and Supreme Court. These numbers certainly don’t prove that TV shows are causing political hope to plummet; there are a number of factors that inform the level of confidence citizens have in their institutions, political and otherwise. But popular representations of political systems do more than simply reflect current attitudes, they teach viewers what to expect and what to celebrate. When the politicians on TV are murdering people and rigging elections, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve come to expect so little of our real elected officials.
It’s certainly arguable that current disdain for politics stems primarily from the quality of real politicians themselves, but it would be wrong to say that our expectations don’t impact the representatives that end up leading us. Our distrust of the system hasn’t motivated action, as much as it has caused apathy. Once we’ve accepted the message on our TV screens—that the system is hopelessly corrupt—we learn to settle for severely diminished standards for our leaders. When we stop hoping for anything better than what we’ve learned to expect, we end up with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The antidote for political apathy is not merely more reminders that the system is imperfect and often corrupt, but an infusion of realistic hope. It might require a different consumption of political representations. I watch House of Cards because I’m a political junkie, but I started watching West Wing episodes in between, even though the show has been off the air for ten years. The balance of overly optimistic and overly pessimistic representations can result in a more moderate perspective. The balance of these two shows mirrors the odd balance Christians must find when we interpret the world around us. The world is fallen and broken, but it is constantly being redeemed by a gracious God. We can have hope that He will work all things for good, in spite of the disheartening condition of our very human political system.
Pragmatic action requires both an acknowledgement of our condition and a hope for better things. Realism without hope only produces apathy, and hope without realism only produces idealism. It might seem trivial, but the representations of politics that we consume can have significant impacts on the level of hope we have and the expectations we maintain. Finding an appropriate balance of influences isn’t about shunning realistic representations of the world, it’s about fighting the temptation to give in to pessimism and apathy, and believing that higher standards for elected officials can actually be achieved.